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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Of Gods And Men

Now here is one odd duck of a film. I was really looking forward to it and I do largely admire it but I can't really say I enjoyed it. And I don't mean "enjoy" as in "have fun with" because, obviously, Of Gods and Men is not a fun film. When I say "enjoy", I basically mean that I wasn't anywhere near as emotionally engaged as I wanted to be. More about this in the review itself. Also, while I gave the film 3/5 on Channel24, I'm going to refrain from rating it here (yes, those stars are ratings out of 10) because I'm still struggling with whether I actually recommend it or not. 

From (Originally published 25 February 2010)

What it's about: 

The true story of a group of monks, living peacefully in the moderate Islamic country of Algeria in the 1990s, whose existence suddenly comes under attack by the rise to power of a very malicious extremist Islamic group. They soon find themselves faced with the choice of whether to stay and very probably die at the hands of ruthless terrorists or to abandon those who depend on them by fleeing back to their native France.

What we thought:

If ever there was a movie that begs for respect and admiration it's the brilliantly and evocatively titled Of Gods and Men. It is a film filled with powerful themes, poignant human emotion, subdued but impressive performances, glorious cinematography and an understated,approach that places it a million miles and 180 degrees away from most Hollywood fodder. It is also a film that I went into with the highest of expectations, thanks to a tidal wave of nothing but the most glowing, most complimentary of overseas reviews. However much I admired the film and its intentions and however much I was very much taken in by certain moments, I was really bored by the overall experience.    

I have never subscribed to the "intellectual" school of arts criticism. I firmly believe that, while it's important to be able to express what does or doesn't work about a certain piece of music, theatre or cinema, it is one's emotional response that should be considered above all else. Of Gods and Men is a perfect example of that brain/heart dichotomy. However much my brain was telling me that what we have here is a truly magnificent piece of cinematic art, my brain was quietly lulling the rest of me to sleep. 

I have come across many suggestions that Of Gods and Men is a film that can only be appreciated by truly devout Catholics and there is probably a certain amount of truth to that. Mind you, I can even see the argument that the film's appeal could be even further limited to Catholic monks. I don't want to speak for all audiences but I'm sure I'm not alone in finding myself extremely alienated by the monastic lifestyle that is so – or so I presume – authentically portrayed in the film.     

There are, as I said, certain parts of the film that I really did respond to. The scenes that portrayed the genuinely peaceful and mutually beneficial bond that these Catholic monks had with their Muslim neighbours were charged with feelings of hope and inspiration and, without descending into cheesy sentimentality, the idea that people can put aside their differences and actually live together in peace and harmony. On the flipside, I was reviled by the rise of militant, Islamist fundamentalism that threatened, and ultimately destroyed that bond.

And then there is the scene towards the end of the film where the monks enjoy their own last supper while listening to a recording of Swan Lake. By doing little more than lingering on their aged, smiling faces, the film is suddenly taken to a whole new level of emotional resonance. I struggle to think of any film released in recent years that is as profoundly moving as those quietly devastating five minutes. 

Much of what came before, however, threatened my patience. The many long and reverential scenes of the monks going about their daily routines and rituals may have made sense dramatically but purposeful monotony is still monotony.

As for the endless progression of scenes where the priests argue amongst themselves whether to abandon their "mission" and flee the increasingly volatile and antagonistic country, I was very surprised by how little they worked for me. I may not be Catholic but I'm hardly irreligious and, more importantly, I am someone who is generally fascinated by films that tackle religious topics but, because I felt so far removed from the most basic ideologies, beliefs and practices of these monks, I was never truly engaged by their plight on anything but a level of pure survival. 

My growing frustration with the film was further compounded by the final forty minutes of the film, where it looked to be on the verge of ending a good half a dozen times. I suppose it could easily be argued that these scenes are there to illustrate the impending and mounting inescapable fates awaiting these monks but I quickly found myself desperate for the film to end.  

Of Gods and Men is a film that is so idiosyncratic and personal in its approach and subject matter that its effect on its audience will vary wildly from person to person.

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